Hummingbirds have a sense of smell: so why do we keep saying that they don’t?

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One of the general features associated with specialised hummingbird-pollinated flowers in the New World is that they often have no scent perceptible to the human nose.  This is then interpreted as evidence that hummingbirds have no sense of smell, which strikes me as circular reasoning at best.  This “fact” is then frequently repeated in text books and on the web, for example at the Bird Watcher’s Digest site, at The Spruce site, and at the World of Hummingbirds.

However I know of only two research papers that have tested whether or not hummingbirds can smell, both of them short notes; and in both cases they found that the hummingbirds they tested could associate scents with food in artificial flowers.  Those studies (with links to the originals) are:

Goldsmith, K.M. & Goldsmith, T.H. (1982) Sense of smell in the black-chinned hummingbird. Condor 84: 237-238

Heringer, H. et al. (n.d. – c. 2006?) Estudo da capacidade olfatória em três representantes da subfamília Trochilinae: Eupetomena macroura (Gould, 1853), Thalurania furcata eriphile (Lesson, 1832) e Amazilia lactea (Lesson, 1832).  Unpublished manuscript – possibly a student project (?)

It surprises me that this has been so little studied, given how much research has otherwise been done on hummingbirds.  Have I missed any other studies?  Clearly vision is more important for hummingbirds when locating food, but that’s not the same as stating that hummingbirds have no sense of smell.  Seems to be one of those myths that won’t go away, of which there are many in pollination biology.

Comments welcomed, as always.

 

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Final thoughts from the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen

IBC 47 Veg market

Despite my best efforts I’ve not been able to produce a daily post about the International Botanical Congress (IBC) in Shenzhen.  The days were just too busy: too many interesting people to talk to; too many great talks to see; too much cold beer to be drunk and tasty food to be eaten; and a too-comfortable bed to collapse into at the end of a long, long day.

It’s Sunday today, and the closing ceremony took place yesterday afternoon.  Speeches were made and thanks offered to our Chinese hosts.  It was a fitting end to what has been a truly remarkable conference, the like of which I’ve never previously experienced, and may never again.  It wasn’t just the scale of it – almost 7,000 delegates giving and attending hundreds of talks – but just the very positive buzz of all of these plant scientists determined to make a difference in some way, through their research and education and outreach work.  That’s been the main theme of this conference: that a healthy global population living in a safe and sustainable world is not possible without plants, and to achieve that we must take the plant sciences very, very seriously indeed.  Plants are the foundation of our civilization and the key to surviving the future.

Anyone who doubts that last sentence should have joined us the other day when we made a short visit to a local fruit and vegetable market.  Beautifully displayed on low stalls was botanical produce that reflected both thousands of years of Chinese cultivation and crop breeding, including food plants not very familiar in the west……

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IBC 46 Veg market

….together with the produce that’s only been a part of the Chinese diet for a few hundred years, or less, following its introduction from Europe and the Americas, including current staples such as chillies, squashes and potatoes:

IBC 43 Veg market

Global movements of food crops have enriched diets and supported the populations of entire countries: most of the fruit and vegetables that we eat in the UK, for instance, are not even native to Europe let alone the British Isles.

During this trip to the market I was able to add two new plant families to my life list of those I’ve eaten.  They were Sauruaceae (the leaves and rhizomes of Houttuynia cordata) and Portulacaceae (Portulaca oleracea being a common leaf vegetable in some parts of the world, but not the UK).  That brings my current total of pant families I’ve eaten to more than 90.

That theme of the importance of plants was codified by the launch at the IBC of the Shenzhen Declaration on Plant Sciences, on which the Natural History Museum’s Sandy Knapp has been an author; hopefully you can read the seven priorities in this image:

IBC 40 Shenzhen Declaration

The Shenzhen Declaration provides both a rallying call for plant scientists to convince their governments of the importance of their work, but also highlights how seriously China takes the whole concept of sustainable development.  It’s remarkable (but actually perfectly logical) that such a fast developing country should be the prime mover in the area of green sustainability.  Only time will tell if they are doing enough, at a pace that will make a difference.

There were a couple of awards made at the closing ceremony, including the first ever Shenzhen Award to Prof. Peter Raven, 81 years old and still going strong.  Earlier in the week a colleague introduced me to this giant of botany and evolutionary biology, and I got to shake his hand, feeling a bit awe struck I have to admit!

IBC 40 Peter Raven.jpg

The Engler Medal went to Chinese botanist Prof. Hong Deyuan for his systematic work on paeonies and other Chinese plants:

IBC 40 Hong Engler.jpg

So, that’s it for another six years.  IBC 20 will be held in Rio in 2023; the Shenzhen Congress has set a high bar, but we’re sure that Brazil can match it!

IBC 39 Rio

Today I’m off to Fairy Lake Botanical Garden to do a bit of exploring with some colleagues, then I fly home tomorrow evening.  It’s been a wonderful trip but I’m looking forward to seeing my family, our cats, and how our garden has changed in the short time I’ve been away.  My sincerest thanks to all the friends and colleagues who have made this such a stimulating and extraordinary conference.  Especial thanks to our Chinese hosts who made us feel so welcome, and the IBC Awards Committee for providing me with an “Excellent Scholar” award to enable me to take part. Over and out from Shenzhen.

IBC 37 - Jeff

 

 

 

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Wampee are not the only fruit: more from the International Botanical Congress

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It’s been a busy couple of days so this is my first chance to post a brief update on what is happening at the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen, China.  Not only have there been great talks to attend, but it’s been an all-too-rare chance to catch up with friends and colleagues, some of whom I’ve not seen for years.  Also I’ve been able to meet researchers whose work I know well but whom I’ve never met.  And I’m still trying to finish my talk for Saturday…..  So here’s a few glimpses of what’s been going on, in no particular order.

On Tuesday I attended two fascinating symposia, one on the patterns and outcomes of pollen transfer between species in plant communities.  The first talk was this one by the great Chinese pollination ecologists Shuang-Quan Huang.  I’ve corresponded with Shuang for years but the IBC has been my first chance to meet him.

IBC 30 - Shuang

That was in the morning; in the afternoon I went to a session on my favourite plant family, the Apocynaceae, organised by my colleague and collaborator Sigrid Liede-Schumann.  This included some great talks on the evolutionary relationships within the family, and patterns of diversity in poorly studied parts of the world.  There were two talks on my favourite genus in my favourite family, Ceropegia. The first, by Sharad Kambale, was about the endemic species found in India, followed by a second on the pollination biology of the genus by Annemarie Heiduk.  Anne’s talk complements my own on Saturday, and in fact she, Sigrid and I are co-authors on a paper on the genus that, we heard on Monday, has just been accepted by the journal Flora.  Here’s a shot of the Apocynaceae participants; Anne is far right with Sigrid next to her.  It’s a sobering thought that Sigrid and I have been collaborating for over 20 years……:

IBC 28 - Apocs

Of the keynote lectures I’ve seen in the last couple of days, I was particualrly inspired by Loren Rieseberg’s over view of plant evolution in the Anthropocene.  This is surely the only talk this week, or at any IBC, that ended with a couple of episodes of a children’s animated series about nature!  Loren’s work with Scout and the Gumboot Kids was inspired by him becoming a father and recognising that the most important contribution he will ever make is the legacy he leaves as a teacher of the next generations, rather than as a researcher (though his research work is very significant!)

I also enjoyed Peter Wyse Jackson’s talk on “International developments and responsibilities for the botanical community in plant conservation”.  Peter very eloquently set out the case for how plant conservationists can lead the way in achieving many of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but the key must be to include local communities within projects and not exclude them.  It reflected a theme that’s running right through the conference, that plant science has a vital role to play in making our civilization sustainable: plants are absolutely key to this:

 

IBC 32 - Development goals

After all, humans are just Super Monkeys in evolutionary terms….

IBC 31 - Supermonkey.jpg

…and monkeys need plants, especially fruit such as these delicious wampee (Clausena lansium) a new one for me that I’d never tried before.  It’s in the same family as oranges and other citrus fruits (Rutaceae) but has a texture more like a grape and a sour, slightly phenolic taste:

IBC 34 - Fruit.jpg

In these blog posts I’m trying to give just a few personal insights into what’s been going on, but there’s much that I’ve missed: on any given day there’s as many as 28 separate symposia going on at the same time!  No wonder then that the IBC has its own daily newspaper:

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Now, I must get back to writing that talk….

 

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Highlights from Monday at the International Botanical Congress

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On the way in to the congress venue yesterday morning I spotted a small yellow bird lying dead on the street; turned out to be a Japanese White-eye, a first for me.  Can I count dead birds on my life list?

The scientific programme for the day got off to a great start with a keynote by Michael Donoghue on the value of model lineages for really exploring plant evolution in depth.  He focused on the work of his group on the genus Viburnum, and it has a masterclass in presenting a lot of complex work in an engaging and contextual way, telling a great story.

These photos tell you about the scale of these keynotes and the need for video feeds of the presentation.  It’s all working well though:

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In the afternoon things got a little more intimate when the themed symposia started.  For now I’ve decided not to try to move between sessions to cherry pick talks I really want to hear and instead stick with the single sessions.  The first of these was on “Pollination by non-flying mammals” and a series of speakers outlined some of the diversity of these animals and how flowers are adapted to be pollinated by them.  As camera traps have become more widely used, especially at night using infra red lighting, the range of mammals known to pollinate flowers has increased and now includes species such as genets and elephant shrews.  The latter wins the prize for outrageous cuteness!  Check out some of the images of these pollinators at this BBC site.

That session ended at 3.30pm and there was just time to chat to a few people and grab a quick coffee before I was speaking at 4.00pm in the “Evolution of floral traits” session, in a vast hall that seemed mainly empty but actually probably had a couple of hundred people in it:

IBC 25

My talk was on “Spatio-temporal stability of an island endemic plant-pollinator interaction involving floral colour change”. It seemed to be well received though in retrospect I probably focused too much on the pollinator side of what’s happening in our Tenerife study system.  The talks that came after were a great mix of scales and approaches but by 6.00pm the jetlag had caught up with me and I couldn’t stop myself falling asleep towards the end of a fascinating talk by Adam Roddy (sorry Adam!)  That was bad enough: then I started snoring and was jerked awake when Kathleen Kay punched me (thank’s Kathleen!)  Oh the science shame….

Much chatting afterwards then whisked off to dinner by some Chinese and American colleagues, in the fanciest hotel I’ve ever seen: we were met out of the lift by a gaggle of singing waitresses…. A very pleasant evening.  Back to the hotel by 9.30pm, for a beer and some tv, but could hardly keep my eyes open.  Slept until 6.00am – huzzah – jetlag seems to be over!  Now to breakfast and the start of a new day.  Must finish writing my talk for Saturday though….

IBC 26

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Feeding of the 7000 – the International Botanical Congress steps up a gear

So it turns out that the figure of 6000 delegates at the International Botanical Congress was wrong: it’s actually almost 7000!  The official figure is 6,953 people from “109 countries and regions” [not quite sure what that means].  There are 3,519 talks scheduled to be given by scientists from 85 countries: botany is such an incredibly international venture!  But then you can say that about all of the sciences.

Yesterday the IBC stepped up a gear with some public lectures in the afternoon.  I managed to catch the one by Steve Blackmore on why greening of  cities is so important, and the role of plants in improving urban living through microclimate modification, food production, aesthetic enhancement, etc.  Couldn’t agree more and it’s a recurring theme in the IBC’s exhibition centre.  The Chinese take this very seriously and Shenzhen has some lovely planting and green spaces; I hope to post more images about this later in the week but here’s one example I snapped on the way to the venue yesterday morning:

IBC 18

The other talk I saw was by the venerable Peter Raven, now in his 80s but still going strong and an inspiration to all of us youngsters 🙂  The theme of Peter’s talk was “Saving plants to save ourselves”, and the importance of the plant sciences for sustaining the Earth in the face of exponential population growth:

IBC 11

Peter introduced the “Shenzhen Declaration” –  an open letter or manifesto that challenges international governments to take the plant sciences seriously and provides something of a road map for how that can be done.  More on the Declaration in a later post.

At 6pm there was a welcoming reception to which all delegates were invited; simply getting that many people into one of the halls was a triumph of logistics, but they were also fed and able to drink as much as they wanted, all for free.  Quite a feat to pull off; this shot was taken fairly early on in the proceedings; there was more than twice that number behind me:

IBC 19

Some more photos from the venue, starting with part of the main display about Chinese conservation.  Not sure that a couple of stuffed pandas sends quite the right message, but who am I to quibble:

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A behind-the-scenes shot of just part of the registration desk area:

IBC 16

The IBC is the only conference I’ve attended that has a SWAT team with automatic weapons, attack dogs, and riot shields on constant standby.  You can just see some of them at the back of this shot, about as close as I dared photograph…..:

IBC 14

No conference is complete without an irritating robot giving out information in a cutesy, high pitched voice:

IBC 12.jpg

So the main scientific programme starts today; I’ll be going to a couple of the keynote lectures in the morning, then there’s a session after lunch on “Pollination by non-flying mammals” that I’m looking forward to.  I’m then speaking at 4pm in the session on “Evolution of floral traits”, discussing some of the work that we have been doing in Tenerife.  Wish me luck!

The session I’m talking in ends at 6pm.  I’m still jet lagged and have been up since 4am so at that point I’ll be ready for a beer and some food!

 

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Theme music for jetlag: more images from the International Botanical Congress in Shenzhen

Jetlag 1It’s 3am here in Shenzhen.  I fell asleep at 1030pm, worn out by the heat and activity of the day, but am now wide awake.  In my head the tune to Millie Small’s 60s hit “My Boy Lollipop” is going round and round and round, with the “Lollipop, Lollipop” refrain replaced with the words “Body clock, Body clock“.  The brain is a strange thing….

At this time in the morning, looking out at a mega hi-rise cityscape of flashing beacons and the constant headlights of moving cars 31 stories below, the Esper Edition of Vangelis’s music from Blade Runner makes a more fitting soundtrack.  That and the jasmine green tea I’ve just made should help me sleep.  But in the meantime here’s a few more images taken today at the convention centre where the International Botanical Congress is taking place.

This is the hall where the opening ceremony happens, and some people are giving lectures.  Just imagine it……:

Jetlag 2

The exhibition area is still being constructed but it’s nearly there:

Jetlag 3

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The future of agriculture?  Some people think so….:

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This tells us a lot about the scale of the event; it’s the covered walk way over to the second venue.  Yes, they needed a second venue….:

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My view at 7pm last night.  Happy memories….:

Jetlag 8

 

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6000 scientists can’t be wrong: the International Botanical Congress 2017

IBC 1

A late afternoon flight from Heathrow got me to Beijing International Airport just in time for me to enjoy a nine hour delay in my connecting flight to Shenzhen in southern China.  I finally arrived at my hotel at 2:15am, exhausted and sweaty in the 30 degree night time heat.  The one consolation is the the hotel was short of rooms so upgraded me to a suite the size of a small city, with a shower like a tropical rainstorm.  Perfect to wash off the dirt of travelling before collapsing into bed.

Why am I here and why is the hotel short of rooms?  Because 6000 scientists have descended on Shenzhen for the 19th International Botanical Congress (IBC).  The IBC is a six-yearly event that rotates around the world; I attended in 1999 in St Louis and 2005 in Vienna, but missed Melbourne in 2011.  At this IBC I’m giving two talks, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conference.  More on that later in the week.

Six thousand botanists need a big conference venue and this morning, after a late breakfast, I strolled up to the convention centre where it’s being held.  It’s enormous, the scale of the thing is overwhelming.  I wandered around whilst they were getting ready for registration opening this afternoon and took some images on my phone.

IBC 2IBC 3IBC 4

There are some fabulous displays of living plants, including this one at the main entrance:

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These are attracting pollinators: in 10 minutes I counted lots of honey bees, one butterfly, at least two species of wasps, and a large carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) visiting flowers.  I only managed to photograph the first two though:

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IBC 6

On the way back to my hotel I gatecrashed an international turtle expo.  Who knew turtles were such a big thing in China….?

OK, that’s all for now: I have to head back to the convention centre to register, so I’ll leave you with the view I’m seeing from where I’m writing this.  Shenzhen is quite a place and I’ll write more about it later in the week:

IBC 8

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Plant-pollinator networks, the time dimension, and conservation: a new study just published

Biella network

After rather a long gestation period, involving much re-analysis and rewriting, we’ve finally published Paolo Biella’s research from his Master’s thesis.  It’s a really neat plant-pollinator network study from mid-elevation grasslands in Italy’s Northern Apennine.  In it we have considered the way in which such networks could be analysed in relation to plant phenology (i.e. the timing of when they flower) rather than arbitrary time slices (e.g. months, weeks).  We have also discussed how this approach may inform conservation strategies in grasslands such as these.  The full citation with a link is:

Biella, P., Ollerton, J., Barcella, M. & Assini, S. (2017) Network analysis of phenological units to detect important species in plant-pollinator assemblages: can it inform conservation strategies?  Community Ecology 18: 1-10 

I’m happy to send a PDF to anyone who is interested in seeing the full study.

Here’s the abstract:

Conservation of species is often focused either only on those that are endangered, or on maximising the number recorded on species lists. However, species share space and time with others, thus interacting and building frameworks of relationships that can be unravelled by community-level network analysis. It is these relationships that ultimately drive ecosystem function via the transfer of energy and nutrients. However interactions are rarely considered in conservation planning. Network analysis can be used to detect key species (“hubs”) that play an important role in cohesiveness of networks. We applied this approach to plant-pollinator communities on two montane Northern Apennine grasslands, paying special attention to the modules and the identity of hubs. We performed season-wide sampling and then focused the network analyses on time units consistent with plant phenology. After testing for significance of modules, only some modules were found to be significantly segregated from others. Thus, networks were organized around a structured core of modules with a set of companion species that were not organized into compartments. Using a network approach we obtained a list of important plant and pollinator species, including three Network Hubs of utmost importance, and other hubs of particular biogeographical interest. By having a lot of links and high partner diversity, hubs should convey stability to networks. Due to their role in the networks, taking into account such key species when considering the management of sites could help to preserve the greatest number of interactions and thus support many other species.

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Another new garden pollinator record – Lunar Hornet Moth

Lunar Hornet Moth cropped

Following on from last week’s post about the Ashy Mining Bee, here’s yet another new record for our garden that I spotted yesterday – the Lunar Hornet Moth (Sesia bembeciformis), one of the Clearwing Moths (family Sesiidae).  It’s a fabulous example of Batesian Mimicry in which a harmless species (the moth) has evolved to resemble a more dangerous or toxic species, in this case large wasps or hornets.  I certainly had to look twice when I saw it!  

These moths do sometimes visit flowers such as umbellifers though the shot below is posed: the moth flew out of my hands as I was moving it and landed on this cultivated geranium.  The larvae feed on sallow and willow (Salix spp.) which we don’t have in the garden, but there’s lots in and around this part of the town.

Looking at the NBN Atlas account for the species I think that this may be a first record for Northampton town itself, though it is recorded out in the county.

Lunar Hornet Moth on GeraniumP1040014

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A new pollinator for our garden: the Ashy Mining Bee

Today I’ve been cracking on with the refurbishment of the old summer house at the back of the garden that previous owners have let fall into rotten disrepair, whilst Karin attends a conference in London.  The renovation has been a slow job, due to lack of time, but a lot of fun, and a good excuse to play with power tools.  In between sawing and drilling, however, I’ve been keeping an eye out for bees and other flower visitors and was delighted to spot a new species for the garden – the Ashy Mining Bee (Andrena cineraria).  It’s a beautiful and distinctive insect that I know from other sites in Northampton, but had not recorded here previously.  The record has been submitted to the BWARS recording scheme for this species.

Do look out for this bee, it’s difficult to confuse it with anything else (which is rare in Andrena….)  Here’s a few photographs of a female collecting pollen from a cultivated rose, that I took with my phone:

Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.55.45Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.55.53

Ashy Mining Bee 2017-06-17 10.56.10

 

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